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"Breaking Bad," Skyler White, and Unspoken Double Standard We Place on Female Anti-Heroes

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 28, 2013 | Comments ()


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A recent NYTimes piece by Anna Gunn about the audience perception of her Breaking Bad character, Skyler White, has raised a number of issues about the misogynistic perception of many female characters in television dramas. Back in May, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan also addressed the issue, saying:

We’ve been at events and had all our actors up onstage, and people ask Anna Gunn, “Why is your character such a bitch?” And with the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple. I like Skyler a little less now that she’s succumbed to Walt’s machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him, “You can’t cook crystal meth.” She’s got a tough job being married to this asshole. And this, by the way, is why I should avoid the Internet at all costs. People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that.

I agree with both Gilligan and Anna Gunn to an extent: The level of venom; the heinous, atrocious nature of the name calling; and the personal attacks have been completely, irredeemably uncalled for, and the people who anonymously toss out the C-word (or worse) in reference to Skyler White and, especially, Anna Gunn personally, deserve their own special place in hell, trapped alone with only the booming sound of their own sh*tty voices drowning out their idiotic thoughts for all of eternity.

However, I don’t necessarily agree that Skyler White was a particularly likable character, either in the beginning of the series or, more obviously now that she aligns herself with Walt. Nevertheless, I think she’s a well written character, perfectly suited to Breaking Bad, and I agree that early on, she was the voice of morality on the show. That does not, however, make her a likable character.

(Part of the problem, or at least the way I see it, is if a writer on a great show has an unlikable female character, then it’s the audience’s fault for not seeing the good in her. If there are unlikable female characters on less critically well-received shows (like, say, The Newsroom), it’s the writer’s fault for not creating a better female character. It hardly seems fair to blame the perception of a character entirely on the audience if we don’t happen to like the killjoy on a show centered around an anti-hero. “Dexter’s” Rita Morgan is a perfect example. She was also the voice of morality on “Dexter,” and she was also something of a killjoy, but the way her character was written was enormously problematic. You simply can’t ask an audience to root both for the anti-hero and the character trying to hold the anti-hero in check (any vitriolic invective aimed at Julie Benz, nevertheless, is inexcusable, and that rests with stupid people’s stupid inability to separate reality from a television show).)

The point I’m driving at, however, is not the way audiences respond to female killjoys (you could also lump the early season iteration of Winona from “Justified” into this camp), but in the absence of well-written female anti-heroines on television for whom we can root. Why aren’t there any female Walter Whites on television?

That’s a more difficult issue to unpack and while I’d love to think we could accept a series centered around a female anti-hero, one example illustrates how unfavorably audiences might react to a ruthless, murdering, ego-driven female lead, especially if she was a mom. Yes, we love Alice Morgan on “Luther,” and yes, audiences seem to be drawn to “Justified’s” Ava Crowder, but they are supporting characters in shows about men. A better example to illustrate the issues with female anti-heroes on television might be “Weeds.”

Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that much of the problem with “Weeds,” especially after they left Agrestic, has a lot to do with the writing on that show. Still, there was another impediment in the way of the audience’s acceptance of the darker, power-driven Nancy Botwin of the later seasons, and that was her motherhood.

Audiences were fully behind Nancy Botwin in the early seasons, when she resorted to dealing pot in order to maintain her family’s quality of life. We applauded the fact that she found a novel solution to the difficult problem she faced after the death of her husband. But our attitudes toward Nancy Botwin took a sudden shift when it became less about her children and more about her own narcissism. Nancy Botwin used her sexuality to get ahead, she was instrumental in the deaths of characters, she willingly assisted in creating a pipeline for drugs from Mexico to the United States, and she heavily involved her own family in her schemes with little to no concern for their ultimate outcomes. She was in it for herself, and not for her family. This was unforgivable, and that has far more to do with gender roles and our societal expectations of the way mothers should behave than it does with sloppy writing.

Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Nucky Thompson (to name a few) are despicable characters, with whom we nevertheless have had rooting interests. They are also terrible parents, but few in the audience place an onus upon them to eschew their immorality for the betterment of their children. Those expectations lie in the mothers, and there’s no better illustration of the audience’s difficulties with matriarchal anti-heroes than the audience’s reaction to Skyler White smoking a cigarette while she was pregnant. The level of outrage was completely disproportionate to the offense. Her husband cooks meth, murders people, and places his family in grave danger, and we rooted for him, yet I cannot tell you how many times I have read on Internet comment boards people flipped the f*ck out because Skyler smoked a goddamn cigarette during her pregnancy.

Our society still expects mothers to be the symbol of morality, and to impart those lessons on our children. Their failure to do so is contemptible and inexcusable. If a father in a movie abandons his wife and children, he’s an asshole. If a mother does the same, she’s morally repugnant individual incapable of redemption. We value ambition in our male characters, even at a moral cost, but there’s a limit to how much ambition we can accept in mothers, and as soon as it conflicts with her parenting responsibilities, we withdraw our sympathies.

I’m not saying its wrong to value the parenting skills of a mother, that would be silly and misguided, even in the context of a fictional television series. Rather I’m suggesting that we should hold our male anti-heroes to the same standard. If Dexter leaves his kid with a nanny all day, or takes him on a kill; or if Walter White places his own family in danger by getting in too deep with a criminal element, we should also factor in their roles as fathers in our sympathy calculus. Walter White is not just a terrible person because he cooks meth and murders people, but because he’s also a shitty father. If we can’t give our darkly drawn female protagonists a free pass on motherhood, we shouldn’t allow for the same in our anti-hero fathers.




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  • Maddy

    Also why do women have to be 'likeable' - male characters get to have nuance and complexity and shades of grey, but women are either 'good' or a 'bitch'

  • Maddy

    Yep all of this. It's not about giving female characters a 'free pass' or 'feminazis' - it's about being self-aware enough to realise how gender impacts, however subtly, on how you read characters. I don't care if you don't think Skyler was a 'perfect wife' to Walt (no one talks about Walt having to be a 'good husband' or 'good father' - he gets to have agency and complexity and a life of his own) or a good mother or 'ungrateful' - this is no excuse for how he treats Skyler and places them all in the line of fire by doing what he's doing - there is no HAD TO about Walt's decisions - cooking meth is not a normal response to getting cancer and having money problems. Skyler herself is flawed and by no means perfect but Walt is clearly a terrible person, even if he won't admit it to himself.

    Some of this is the double-standards we place on female characters, but some of it is inbuilt into the mechanics of the show - Walt drives the plot, and we are socialised to dislike anything that is a 'buzzkill' or stymies the plot and the main character, who we are initially set up to have sympathy for, and we rarely get a look at Skyler (or Marie) and her life before Walt or outside of Walt, or the family dynamics of Skyler/Marie (I don't think we even know what her maiden name is?) - her story is ancillary to Walter's because in the end this is Walt's story and everyone else is there to put up roadblocks, or assist him or react.

  • rebecca

    How can you write this and not mention Betty Draper, who gets this double standard for being a mother more than anyone does? She's just as dark as a character as Don is but she doesn't have the same outlets.

  • St

    Skyler White is not sympathetic character. That’s it. And she never was. Even before they made her some victim of Walter or something. People hated her from the first episodes. And that’s problem of an actress. Gus and Mike were never written as sympathetic characters. But actors were so good at their roles that people liked them and felt for them. Actor that played Gus was fantastic. Even in Revolution he plays bad person but is still charming at it.

    If people hate Skyler then it’s Anna Gunn’s fault. It means she is bad actress. And she should stop blaming viewers for it. She reminds me Hillary Swank. She can be good as tough ordinary, no pretty women and get Oscars for it. But then fails when she tried to play pretty and fun women in romantic movies or be lead actress in big budget action movie. And her career went nowhere after 2 Oscars.

    Anna Gunn may play Skylers fear of Walter and her hate for him and get Emmy nominations for it, but she can’t play Skyler as sympathetic and nice person. Her acting talents is not good enough for it. And stop blaming viewers for it.

    People adore Scully, Buffy, female characters from Friedns, Kara Thrace, Joan Watson, every female character from Game of Thrones (even Cercei), Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon and many other female characters because actors play them interesting. Cersei Lannister is major bitch. But no one really hates her and wants her to die. Simply because actress plays her interesting.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I don't know why this got negative votes, I think St made several valid points. I'm not saying Anna Gunn is a bad actress, per se but she does tend to come across haughty and judgmental in nearly everything I've ever seen her in. There's not really a lot of range in her performances. If she hadn't become attached to an extraordinary show like this, I doubt anyone here would be singing her praises.

  • Maddy

    This is amazing, but unfortunately the people that really need to read this probably won't. Also, obviously Walt sucks I don't understand how this is even a debate - at the risk of sounding hugely condescending - people do get that just because he's the main character it doesn't mean he's a 'good' character that you have to root for right?

  • Janice Dawley

    "if Walter White places his own family in danger by getting in too deep with a criminal element, we should also factor in their roles as fathers in our sympathy calculus"

    Well, some of us do. I haven't rooted for Walter White in several seasons, because he is a terrible person in almost all ways. My larger question isn't, "why can't people root for female characters who are terrible people", but, "why do audiences have so little trouble identifying with evil men"?

  • Hazel Dean

    Really? You'd "love to think we could accept a series centered around a female anti-hero" but emphatically dismissed Enlightened as unwatchable?

    Here's a great article describing how Amy Jellicoe is one of the few well-written female anti-heroes on television which you're decrying a lack of:

    http://www.indiewire.com/artic...

  • Kate

    I think the problem is people decided who her character was based on the first few episodes. She doesn't come off well in those episodes (the worst handjob in the world, Walt is working two jobs but she's been a SAHM to a teenager who attends regular high school for years, the OTT reaction to thinking Walt smokes a little pot, the nagging, which is understandable, but which no one ever likes, and then later the terrible cancer intervention), and because Walt has cancer, because he starts out as sort of pathetically downtrodden, you feel for him. Some people haven't been able to let go of that first impression.

    Personally Walt reminds me so much of my father, so I saw the sociopath in him very early on in Season 1, and I'm amazed at anyone who didn't completely hate the man after Season 2, but then I suppose I was always amazed by how few people saw through my father. Sometimes I find him hard to watch (little to close to home) but he's driving the story forward, and he often has the much more likeable Jesse or the lighter Saul to play against. Skylar and Walt in a room together is just full blown unlikeableness.

    I think Skylar has turned into a really fantastic, complex character, but she's never been a likeable one. Even in Season 1, she doesn't really have friends, her relationship with her sister is close but clearly fraught...she's not a person people want to hang out with. Around season 3 I started to like her a bit. Seeing her at work was good, seeing her hit back at Walt was good. But then she willingly joined forces with Walt. I think it's similar to the Tony Soprano/Carmela relationship. They see the evil, and they come close to doing something about it, but instead they remain passive. A big part of you wants them to run or to bring those guys down, so you get frustrated when they don't. And because they can be extremely judgmental characters, because they make it clear they think they are better than their husbands, we judge them harshly for their participation. No one likes a hypocrite.

    I'm really interested in seeing where Skylar goes in the last few episodes. At this point she's fully in it, she's hurt her sister, she's arguing for killing people... If she fully embraces the bad, people might actually come out liking the character. Same as if she turns against Walt at the last minute. But if she just remains a passive bystander, watching everything go down but remaining removed from the action, I think the dislike will be completely merited. Nobody likes that person in real life, and while realistic, they aren't particularly entertaining to watch.

  • emmalita

    I never noticed that Skyler doesn't have friends. (Probably because it's a tv show and tv worlds are unrealistically small). But you are right.

  • St

    And don’t forget how our "victim" Skyler destroyed life of that Ted guy for no reason. Because she wanted to revenge on Walter or something. I think last time we saw Ted was when he was lying in hospital bed (after he nearly died because Skyler brought him into it), being scared and promised Skyler to do everything she wanted because he was feared for his life.

  • Marc Greene

    I always took the dynamic between Walt and Skylar as just one very dark, personal power struggle. When the series started, Walt by all accounts was fairly well browbeaten, but when he began his slide into evil, it filled him with power (*see his sexual domination of Skylar in episode 1-2). This paradigm shift filled Skylar with suspicion and she expressed her attempts to take the upper hand in the relationship through numerously subjectively domineering ways. When she finally had proof that Walt had a double life and was thereby exerting more power in secret, we get the IFT scene. Throughout the series this push and pull between them defined their relationship (remember the gambling lie discussion scene with Skylar's script), up until the point where Skylar knew Walt was "the danger" and how deadly he could be. When she acquiesced to his wishes/lifestyle after trying to outmaneuver him with the kids, she resigned herself to just holding out for the long term final victory: the cancer returning. All she wanted (for the safety of her family and/or to exert her will) was Walt to quit the business. Once he did, she had won and things could go back to a detente-level of normalcy, until she found out that the cancer had indeed returned. Then she knew she had the final victory and now it is all about, as Walt says, "Making sure it wasn't all for nothing".

  • F'mal DeHyde

    That's an excellent analysis. I hadn't thought of it as a battle of wills between the two although now that I read that, it clearly is. Skyler was the dominant partner for so long that Walt finally getting a spine was an affront to her.

  • MNightShannalan

    I don't think that they're saying that you have to *like* her. She's pretty unlikable, just like Betty Draper and Carmella Soprano and so many others. But the virulent, enthusiastic hate often crosses the line of "I don't like this character" and into misogyny (using Gilligan's word).

    I say, go ahead and dislike her, but discuss these women's motivations and personalities and actions with the same patience and insightfulness that you'd use on their bad boy husbands. And if that's hard, talk about why that's hard.

  • Dumdedum

    Before I started reading BB message boards I hadn't realised so much hate for a character that is instrumental in Walt not being in jail. Some charges I've seen against her:
    1) She gave away Walt's money... To avoid an IRS inspection that would certainly have found Walt owning a laser quest centre hugely suspicious. Six months or so later her decision has been proved to be the right one, especially as at the time Walt was reassuring her that there was no immediate cause for concern or desperate need for cash. Unless the haters wished Walt (+ / -) family had gone into hiding (which might actually be a trip to Belize). By using her knowledge of finance to bail Ted out and persuade Walt to go for carwash over laser she has successfully evaded the IRS. = Right decisions.

    2) She slept with Ted... When Walt wasn't accepting her decision to divorce and had moved himself back into the house. Sleeping with Ted to get Walt to leave probably looked a kinder option than turning Walt into the police. But still he stayed. She does feel regret about sleeping with Ted. Can you say the same about everyone Walt has used? And don't forget Walt hit on the headmistress. = Understandable choice.

    3) She isn't overwhelmed with gratitude for Walt doing all he's done to make money for his family. Probably because she knows that that isn't his only motivation. At start of Season 5 he has the chance to walk away with $5million, more than his family could ever need. He doesn't do this as he wants to leave a legacy (one that could actually get his family jailed/killed). Look at how he reacts when someone challenges his authority/expertise - he is outraged at the sloppy meth cooking going on in Series 1; when Skyler tries to get the kids to safety in series 5 he chased her around the bedroom. Think how many times he has told Jesse he is an idiot, he even took two girlfriends away from the poor lad and incriminated him by making him stay for dinner. After what he said to Jesse end of Series 4 can any of us trust a word that comes out of Mr White's mouth? = Insight and correct mistrust of Walt.

    4) Her terror at being separated from her baby in Buried was palpable. Walt has never seemed to fear prison as much as her - in the first episode he shoots himself with unloaded gun to not get caught by police (actually fire brigade). I don't think Skyler would do that. = Loves her family.

    So yeah, I'm a bit of a fan of Skyler (although good lord her Marie shoplifting storyline in Season 1 was dull).

  • Slash

    Yeah, the thing is, often the smartest, most rational people aren't "nice." They're not all, "Hey, now, sweetie, I don't want to judge, so I mean this in the very best way when I say please don't cook meth or kill people."

    They say shit like, "What the fuck is wrong with you?!" Sometimes, being nice doesn't get people's attention. Esp. if you're a woman and the other person (or people) is/are men.

  • The Double Standard

    You know, you go to work every day, and you do your job and a lot of it is necessarily behind the scenes, and you're generally ok with that. Because a lot of the time it's easier to do if people don't notice what you're doing.

    But sometimes, you wonder - 'Does anybody really notice?' and think that maybe a little recognition from society might be nice. And then you see articles like this and it just warms your heart.

  • Artemis

    I've thought about this a lot as the final season of Breaking Bad has unfolded, and I've come to the following conclusion: A female anti-hero story doesn't work, at least not in the way that a Walter White or Tony Soprano does.

    Those characters didn't spring out of nowhere; they're rooted in a long, well-developed history of male anti-heroes and are examining and deconstructing the kinds of characters and character traits that pop culture has long taught us to root for. There is no female equivalent -- the male anti-hero trope (a lone man playing by his own rules, doing bad things but for good reasons or at least for understandable ones) has never had a female counterpart. By contrast, women were love interests, or occasionally villains (real ones, not ones you were meant to cheer for), and once in a while they got to be actual heroes, usually with the assistance of or the end goal of a man.

    And because there isn't that historical narrative of female anti-heroes (and because, speaking in very general terms, society is quicker to criticize women) our natural inclination when we see women doing bad things on screen is to think badly of them. If Vince Gilligan had taken the script for Breaking Bad's pilot and just swapped the genders, Walda White never would have gotten past the anti- to achieve anti-hero status.

    And while I agree entirely that we have expectations--and criticism--of mothers that we don't apply equally to fathers, I think that the problem is a little different than how you framed it, Dustin. Nancy wasn't hated (or at least wasn't ONLY hated) because she was a mother who didn't do a very good job of being one; Nancy was hated because as a woman her only acceptable motivation would have been motherhood. In other words, it's not that once women have children the expectations change, it's that we think (in life, and in fiction) that the only way to justify a woman doing bad things is if she is doing it for her kids.

    Maybe that seems like splitting hairs, but I think it matters. Because Skyler didn't just get hate for smoking while pregnant, she got hate for cheating on Walt (while they were separated after she found out that he was a drug kingpin and, oh yeah, after he raped her). Betty didn't just get hate for being a bad mom, she got it for being "whiny" and having mental health issues and flirting with Henry. Walt and Don and Dexter can do things motivated by their personality traits or past trauma or external stresses in their life, and we are okay with it (or at least somewhat understanding of it). But if a woman has motivations that are not "I have children, and am doing this for my kids," we are far less likely to sympathize or understand.

    (And finally, can someone explain the Rita hate to me? I actively liked her, and have never gotten the hate. She may not have been the most interesting character, but that's hardly a unique problem when it comes to secondary characters on Dexter. I seriously can't think of a single thing she did that justifies everyone's dislike--she fit the good mom trope perfectly, she was unbelievably understanding of Dexter's nonsense, and she even knocked out her rapist ex-husband that time he came back and tried to rape her again. Yeah, she was an obstacle to Dexter, but as we've all been bemoaning ever since she died, Dexter without obstacles is a really boring show. I seriously don't understand why people think she was a bad or dislikeable character, especially when judged on a curve against all of the other characters that show has produced.)

  • emmalita

    I think that Patty Hewes was a viable female anti-hero. She often took on admirable cases and then was ruthless in her pursuit of victory. I don't remember a lot of hatred and vitriol being flung at Patty outside of the show. She had lots of people on the show telling her she was a terrible person and a terrible mother. Of course, her primary adversary was always Ellen, even when they were on the same side. I wonder if the response to her would have been more passionate if her protege/adversary had been male.

  • Salieri2

    Great response, soup to nuts. You said, among other cogent things:

    [anti-heroes Walter White or Tony Soprano] didn't spring out of nowhere; they're rooted in a long, well-developed history of male anti-heroes and are examining and deconstructing the kinds of characters and character traits that pop culture has long taught us to root for. There is no female equivalent -- the male anti-hero trope (a lone man playing by his own rules, doing bad things but for good reasons or at least for understandable ones) has never had a female counterpart. By contrast, women were love interests, or occasionally villains (real ones, not ones you were meant to cheer for), and once in a while they got to be actual heroes, usually with the assistance of or the end goal of a man.

    Exactly! Anti-heroes work as characters because they're built around the dramatic tension of good vs evil: they've good intentions but bad actions; good actions but bad intentions--they don't adhere to what we've been told to love or hate, they're compelling because they partake of both. And they're men, because almost all the heroes and villains are also men. We don't have a rich tradition of female heroes and female villains to give a female anti-hero space to work in. No context.

  • janet1003mn

    I've never rooted for Walt. I saw through him during that first season when, as another commenter pointed out, he was offered a good job with health insurance and turned it down. He was looking for an excuse to let his freak flag fly -- and his cancer gave it to him on a platter. I've never been a big Skyler fan either. I actually don't get why Vince Gilligan ever found her likable. Saying she was the "voice" of morality -- but only a temporary one -- but not making her a character of morality in action made her almost immediately unlikable because it made her weak and ineffectual. That's why she's not sympathetic and likable. But I do separate the character Skyler from the actress Anna Gunn. And I don't actively hate her for her actions or even find them particularly bitchy. I think her actions have been completely in character. I'd expect her to be complicit in her madman, meth-cooking, murderous husband's machinations. For me, Jesse is the only character worth genuine compassion. His is the most complexly-drawn and fully-developed of anyone. His struggles with his own actions ring truer than anyone else's.

  • PaddyDog

    For my part I am really enjoying Sklar now that she has opened herself to her inner Lady Macbeth. My problems with her earlier were that they were clearly struggling financially with Walt working two jobs yet she hadn't worked in five years. At minimum I thought she could have waitressed and made as much as Walt did washing cars, but then we find out she has mad clever bookkeeping skills that she could have been using to contribute. Pull your bloody weight in the marriage woman.

  • Maddy

    Except that she was the primary carer of a son with cystic fibrosis - probably hard to find work that's flexible enough to accommodate that. I assume she would have had to stay at home full time when he was younger and once you're out of the workforce I assume it's difficult to get back in. Admittedly this isn't explained or explored in the show, and I don't pretend to have lots of knowledge about the needs of children with cystic fybrosis but something to consider. I assume she brought in some income through writing, accounting etc at some point, and that the money situation probably wasn't as dire when Walt was working for Grey Matter

  • dizzylucy

    I've always felt that Skyler is unlikeable - and that's OK. She doesn't have to be someone I want to go hang out with. She's complex, flawed, interesting, and a crucial part of this story, and I'd almost rather see them own her "bitchiness" rather than try to convince everyone she's not, because she doesn't have to be likeable. However, given the insane overreaction many have had, I get why they feel the need to defend her, and Anna (who by all means should be defended, she's done nothing short of an amazing job).

    We are sorely lacking in female anti-heroes though. Honestly the only one I can think of at the moment, is Olivia Pope on Scandal - a show I can easily see becoming tiresome after a few seasons, but at least it's an attempt at having the audience root for a woman who rarely does the right thing.

    As for Nancy Botwin, I stopped watching Weeds when the writing on the show got bad, and everything kept escalating to ridiculousness, and they lost the original concept of the show.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'd say Damages has two anti-heroes. And older than that, I think of Livia Soprano, and then her daughter.

  • janet1003mn

    And even older than that is the original female anti-hero -- Lady Macbeth.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    See? Now SHE is charming. Seductive, one might say.

  • Josh Brodriguez

    Ugh...I still liked Nancy up until the very end of the series that's what anti-heroes are, I mean if you got angry at the character that's on you and I don't see that as having a bad anti-heroes, not at all. That's why they are anti-heroes. Walter White has done some really stupid things on the show but that's because he's an anti-hero. Nancy Botwin did stupid things on the show but that's because she's an anti-hero.

  • Yossarian

    Skyler White doesn't have to be morally good or a likable as person, she has to be dramatically good and enjoyable as a part of a story. The continued conflation of the two definitions of "character" (or, of the word "good") is the most confounding part of this ongoing debate, as if the vitriol heaped upon the Skyler character can be justified if we can somehow prove that her character is flawed.

    I think the continued attempts to rationalize or defend her character's actions within the story only contribute to the noise of this tiresome discussion. If there is a problem with the function of the character within the story it is first and foremost a problem of the writers (if there is a problem with the performance that speaks to the actress, but in this case Anna Gunn's acting is beyond reproach and I don't usually hear the "Skyler White hate" framed like this anyway). I the best thing you can come up with is "she's a bitch" you aren't thinking critically and you're barely thinking at all, just reacting.

    And so all the idiots out there who don't know how to process their unhealthy emotional response to seeing a female foil and distinguish it from their critical appreciation of art, well, they simply need to grow the fuck up. To that end the best thing that can happen is more complex, quality roles for women in film and television because that will slowly, over time, influence the way society perceives and responds to these things (and as an added bonus, it just makes for better more interesting television in general). Until then, I think it's ok to laugh at them, because how else will they learn?

  • GDI

    It's unreasonable to expect people that can't distinguish that Anna Gunn isn't the one writing the script or directing the show to suddenly grow up. They probably lack the understanding of how these things are produced and want to pin their frustrations on a singular source (same could be said about the flak presidents have received, rather than their entire administration, or even a systematic problem that requires focus on a larger scale).
    Fixing this insane and unjust scrutiny isn't going to be easy.

    Yes, there is no context for strong female characters in film and tv. There needs to be vulnerability and humanity mixed with the validation of evil acts before we get a proper anti-hero. The problem is that female characters are so poorly written, with their character traits being a defined by extremes. There is no nuance. Either the cold-hearted bitch with no remorse or recourse, or a flower of passivity, a mindless sexual object.

    Skylar has been a mixture of these traits, made worse with meandering motivations. I have not seen her as voice of reason once. She's been holier-than-thou and obnoxious. It's sad, because the set-up is so god damn brilliant; everything Walt touches has decayed into a warped version of it's prior self.
    I would've liked to have seen a stronger Skylar, providing more positive contributions (such as stirring up Walt's moral compass, possibly getting him to close to redemption), yet ultimately failing because of how perverse and corrupting the power brought from the Heisenberg empire, even fully embracing it.

    As it stands, Walt is far too alluring to allow any other character to fully grow. Maybe this is the real issue. I have felt that I have to tolerate the supporting cast for 3-4 seasons, and they have finally begun to shine. But this bolstering of the secondary characters is all due to the center of their universe becoming increasingly unstable; Heisenberg is going to implode or explode. Where the pieces land is all due to his actions and reactions.

  • Fredo

    Before we pin this all on the audience's internal expectations, let's look at how Skyler is perceived by the other person closest to her: her sister, Marie. What has been Marie's reaction to finding out Skyler was fully aware of Walt's meth empire? She slapped the shit out of her and tried to take her infant daughter away. This from the person who grew up with Skyler as a de facto authority figure rejecting Skyler's authority and finding her unfit.

    In a sense, this is the path Gilligan and the writers wanted Skyler to go: to be seduced by the fruits of Walter's poisonous labors. To succumb into the darkness of Walter and be a part of it.

    Why don't we get such complex female characters? We do. We just don't get as many. The best example I can think of is Catherine Zeta-Jones in Traffic, when she loses her husband to prison and, desperate to keep the world she's lived in, becomes a dark and nefarious drug lord herself who's ordering hitmen to get out of cars and pop federal agents in the head.

    The intriguing concept to consider is that it appears that we can think of any number of reasons why a Walter White would turn into Heisenberg, but for Skyler to do likewise, it could only be if Walter is removed from the picture.

  • LucyKlein

    The problems with a lot of main character's wives, is that their
    character solely revolves around their husband. Like Rita, she had
    literally nothing else going on. Compared to say, Betty Draper who had
    issues raising her kids, conflicts with her neighbors/friends, therapy sessions, uncertainty about sexuality versus morality yet using her beauty as power, and other things that done the line. She did stand up to Don, throwing him out and eventually leaving him.

    Most TV wives are like the toys from Toy Story. If the main character's not around, they just fall to ground, lifeless, and waiting to be played with.

    The Skyler hate comes from sexism, but, also a thinly written character.
    After all the awesomeness with Ted, Skyler's been relegated to the
    'wife/mother' role. I take issue with Gillian and Anna Gunn saying
    Skyler is a strong character, she's not. She's a meek, shelled shocked
    person, which is fine considering what's she's been through. She does not have a spine of steel. I just tired of seeing her look confused or on the verge of tears. We've seen the 'battered wife' of the anti-hero/villain *so* many times, it's just not that interesting. This is the character that Gillian wrote, he needs to take responsibility instead of blaming everyone else.

  • Artemis

    Completely disagree that Skyler isn't a strong person. Yeah, she was meek and shell-shocked -- eventually. After severe, significant emotional abuse from a man she had every reason to believe was credibly threatening to take her children and/or kill her.

    But before that, she was the one running the household (which she got hate for, because it was "emasculating"). Then she was the one who, while raising a son with a disability and pregnant/taking care of an infant, was the model of a supportive wife helping her husband cope with his terminal cancer diagnosis. She's the one who arranged for Grey Matter to give Walt a cushy job and health benefits, which in a single (completely legal!) stroke took care of the problem that Walt had decided justified his entry into the drug trade (endangering his family physically and risking devastating them if he was caught).

    Then, when Walt's shifty act went too far, Skyler spent weeks piecing together all of the clues and confronted him about his double life. When he confessed, she kicked him out of the house. When she eventually agreed to take part in his illegal activities, she was the one smart enough to figure out how to launder money and make Walt's drug activity a viable source of income for the family. She came up with a cover story that Marie and Hank would buy. She figured out how to deal with Ted and the IRS.

    And while I'm not saying that she's been an entirely moral person or 100% coerced into what she's done--she isn't and she hasn't been--I think the "but Skyler could have left any time so she's totally at fault for staying!" is way too simplistic. Yeah, she could have left at any time -- if she was willing to turn her dying husband into the DEA, which would have destroyed Walt Jr., made the family targets for anyone who wanted revenge on Heisenberg, and left her with no money at all (everything they had would have been seized as proceeds of Walt's crimes and/or restitution) trying to raise a son with a disability and a baby girl after having not been in the workforce for many years. That's not exactly a good set of options--in fact, it's a much worse set than what Walt had at the beginning of the show (even if we ignore the Grey Matter offer). And very quickly, as Walt got much badder, she lost even that option. Because he made it very clear that he had killed people and would kill her, or have her committed, if she tried to leave him and take the kids.

    So I have real trouble with the idea that Skyler's not strong because she spent all of 8 episodes being meek and shell-shocked while her abusive, murderous drug kingpin husband explicitly threatened her over and over and forced her to stay in the marriage, living in that house with him, working for the business that laundered his money. And even then, she wasn't fully passive. She staged a suicide attempt that got the kids out of the house--and danger--for several months. And she straight-up told the abusive husband who had her literally backed into a corner that she was just waiting for him to die. That's a lot more balls than I would have had.

  • GDI

    I'll give you that Skylar is not weak-willed nor stupid.

    It's easy to claim that she stronger and more dominant in the beginning, when she really didn't have any major obstacles relative to what happens to her later on. It is the presence of world-shattering revelations and her reaction to them that tested and forged her character.

    The beginning of the series sees Skylar living in relative opulence and naivety, where as Walt was dealing with his mortality on multiple levels. Now, Walt is basically back to square one, even with all his new tools at disposal.
    Skylar, on the other hand, is facing utter annihilation with little more than grit and determination. All the bullshit she put with is going to possibly bury her and her family. All her trials appear to be for naught and she knows it.
    She's basically in the same situation as Walt, yet so much more worse off. He's mentally prepared for a year-ish to face his end, while Skylar has had a crash course on her personal apocalypse, with fallout that will have far reaching consequences (regardless of whether she lives or dies).

    So I refuse to see early Skylar as anything other than a flimsy obstacle to place in Walt's way, when, comparatively, she expanded far beyond that in the season 3 and on.

  • Uriah_Creep

    This is such an excellent analysis of the situation, I wish I'd written it. Bravo.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    I agree.
    I especially hate the weird vitriol about Skyler's appearance (because Walt has David Beckam's body).

    My biggest problem with the Anna Gunn article was the comment about Skyler having a "Backbone of steel". No, she doesn't.

    Walt is basically the devil now and that's fine, but every time that Skyler's had an out (be it Hank, flipping the coin at the Four Corners or just leaving him and taking the kids) she doesn't take it.
    Now, she's letting Walt destroy her sister, and suggesting he kill Jesse, but she's not really doing anything, just expecting Walt to handle it.

    She's passive in essence, and that's ok, but she's not the real hero of the show and not the backbone of the family. She's written that way and Gilligan needs to accept that he's written her that way.

  • emmalita

    Yes! Skyler had a lot of options to get out of the situation without selling her soul to Walter White. Skyler is educated, has a marketable skill, isn't in the country illegally, has family in the area ready, willing and able to help, and her brother-in-law is in the DEA. It would have been a different show, but maybe a more interesting and sympathetic Skyler.

  • Ted Zancha

    This was weird. Just before I read this article I read this one:

    http://unrealitymag.com/index....

  • Genevieve Burgess

    As a viewer of "Hannibal" and someone who has read "Red Dragon" I've been wondering for a while now how far they're going to take Freddie Lounds's story now that the show has made her a woman. They've shown that they're not above making her a despicable human being, which I like, but I'm curious to see if she stays that way or gets softened up, and if they stay true to how that character ends up and what people's reactions will be. If the show was about her, she'd be an anti-hero. As is, she's just kind of a foil for Will Graham. She's the only woman on TV I can think of off the top of my head that's so clearly written and depicted like the human embodiment of that feeling you get when you bite tinfoil.

  • Sars

    The problem with Skylar, in the first season, was that she wasnt written very well. She was written as the overprotective wife, but we didnt get to see any other aspects of her character. Regardless of what the writers/ producers say* about the character, the fact remains that she wasnt a multifaceted character like Walt or Jesse. We didnt know her motivations. We were pissed that she was pregnant, and naggy and overly concerned about Walt, but never took any measures to relieve him of all his responsibilities.
    The shift, for me at least, came when Ed was hospitalized. That moment, the look(s) on Skylar's face, as she went from horror, to pity to relief and pride, was amazing. At that very moment she became much more than a naggy wife, she became whole. A person with her own motivations and her own darkness.
    Cudos to Anna Gun, for doing what she could with the Skylar character in the begining, and developing her into so much more, when given the chance.

  • Maddy

    I agree that not all of the Skyler hate is the 'fault' of the audience - she was definitely not a fleshed out character in season 1

  • "...pissed that she was pregnant..."

    That pregnant bitch. Ruining Walter's plans with her embryonic shit.

  • I didn't really even like Breaking Bad that much until season four when they decided Skyler could actually do things and become a fleshed put character.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Like in Justified, I think for the most part (whilst acknowledging there are some misogynistic assholes out there) there is simply a negative reaction to anyone playing the killjoy roll. I think many people are liking Skyler more as she became more of a badass.

  • chanohack

    In real life, the opposite has been true for me: people seem to think that a mom, just by virtue of being the female parent, should have endless forgiveness even if she is a truly terrible human being. Your dad is terrible? Cut him off, fuck that guy, good for you. Your mom is terrible? Don't be so hard on her. She is your mom, after all. Interesting that our takes on fictional people seem to be reversed.

  • Ruby

    This reminds me of people complaining about Catelyn Stark being an over-protective mother. Yes she worries about her kids, what with her husband being killed and daughters being held captive by the family that murdered her husband, one son could be killed at any moment during battle, another is comatose. Of course she's worried.
    I don't see a difference between her concerned for her kids versus Ned's. Ned did go against his honor to lie about Joffrey's lineage to protect Sansa and Arya.

    *it's also similar to people that a mother's love is more important, etc.
    If a father's love wasn't important then strip clubs wouldn't be a thing.

  • emmalita

    I didn't talk to my parents for several years, not one person ever said, "but your father loves you." All the criticism was centered around my mother.

  • chanohack

    Maybe it's the same reasoning-- people assume that a mother's love is boundless and endless and magical and all that shit, and that any person not on speaking terms with her or his mother is obviously too close to the situation to understand that. She or he is going through some rebellious phase which will end when she or he stops being mad and grows up. Most people don't like to think that mothers can really be at fault, which could be why they LOATH fictional TV mothers that challenge that ideal, whom they know to be at fault.

    Which is bullshit, because with fathers it's totally different. Real-life asshole dad? Don't put up with him. Fictional asshole dad? Well, sometimes that happens.

  • draeton

    I think this is one of those "your mileage may vary" comments. I speculate that it is much more common to see criticism of wanting/absent fathers in real life because it is much more common to find fathers in real life who shirk their parental responsibilities.

    In further support of this hypothesis, if we find it to be true, we will also find that it is the mother who establishes the narrative and negative assessment of the father's character.

  • chanohack

    I've thought of that. It's also true that in most cases abuse from a father has the potential for being worse than abuse from a mother (because men are typically bigger and stronger and statistically more likely to abuse sexually). But that doesn't mean abuse, neglect, and abandonment from mothers doesn't happen, even if it happens less often or (arguably, though I disagree) less severely. To me, people acting like shunned mothers are misunderstood is just a weird extension of sexism. Denying that mothers can be terrible is like denying that they can earn a living.

    And I'm not accusing you of this or anything-- I've just personally heard people make excuses like these my ENTIRE life. It baffles me.

  • draeton

    I can't help but think that your experience is *extremely* atypical. From my side of the coin, I've seen mothers castigated by society even when they do everything right. Perhaps she bought the wrong brand of diapers, or switched to solid food a touch too soon. Perhaps she dropped her son off at the door to the school without a coat, because she struggled to get him to wear it for over an hour and otherwise they would be late. Perhaps she missed a parent conference because her work schedule didn't permit her to attend. Perhaps she couldn't afford proper school supplies because she's a stay-at-home mother. The list goes on and on... as men, we will never truly comprehend the mind-boggling number of ways the behavior of women—and especially mothers—is hemmed in by society.

  • chanohack

    I'm not a man.

  • draeton

    I'm quite embarrassed now—it appears I've been mansplaining to a woman. Please accept my apology for the assumption.

  • chanohack

    No prob-- I should probably tell my avatar to put a shirt on and lose the 'stache. :)

    My gender doesn't invalidate your point, however, and I do see what you're saying.

  • I am a generic internet commenter and I hereby declare that Skyler White is a bitch. I say this on the basis of empathy: I myself have many times been in a situation whereby my husband got diagnosed with cancer and then dealt with it by turning into an amoral meth kingpin, covering up his trail with mendacious lies. I also know what it's like to bring up a child with cerebral palsy and give birth to a baby daughter just about around the Husband is a Meth Kingpin stage. I can relate to all of this, and I can without doubt say that I handled things with much more poise, cool, and general composure, and so now I feel free to pass down my furious, justified judgement on this terrible bitch. And I'm sure everyone else who has ever said this shares my background.
    Now where are my Cheetos.

  • L.O.V.E.

    I am a generic internet commenter and I hereby declare that I have nothing better to do then to self-righteously critique your grammar and/or word-usage, and thus hereby further declare that everything you wrote is automatically invalidated by your redundant phrase, "mendacious lies".
    Now where is the handle I use to pull this stick out of my ass.

  • Tee-hee, hee... Of all the people to have taken the bait, I'm glad it was you, L.O.V.E., love

  • L.O.V.E.

    Oh, I'm just doing a signature move I came up with called "'pig'-gy backing". I sit back and wait for another one of your great post, then I sweep in, post off your comment and look good by proximity. The lesson is if you want to look good then saddle up to a pig. Wait, that came out wrong.

  • You slimy, sleazy, wily little fucker.
    Never change.

  • emmalita

    Or not wrong enough.

  • Definitely not wrong enough

  • Obst N. Gemuse

    For me the problem with the Skylar character is that she goes from neutral to wigged-out bitch in a flash. That aspect of the character is tiresome and poorly written. Perhaps less Skylar is better.

  • draeton

    I forgive many of her perceived faults because I don't know how I would react if I discovered I was married to a manipulative, mendacious, meth cooking, mad man.

  • I've got no opinion on the point, but kudos for the alliteration!

  • Jonathon

    That's a good point. I think people forget that even though the show has been on for five seasons it's all taking place in about the span of a year. I mean that is a lot to happen in one year.

  • Lucluc

    I didn't care about Skyler during the first season, because she was just reacting Rita Morgan's whining, complaining, and endless questioning wife routine. I loved her sleeping with Ted, conning the auditor, then sending Saul's guys to watch him. I would have liked to seen more of Skyler taking charge... without looking like she's about to cry. Production, take charge Skyler is fun. Watching Breaking Bad's version of Rita Morgan is not.

  • draeton

    I've wanted to make this point for a while... Many people have been excusing Walt's behavior by saying he is an unforgivingly rational individual who had no other way to provide for his family. Those people forget about the season one episode, Gray Matter, where Walt's old business partner offers him a well-paying job with excellent health insurance (it is implied that this is thanks to Sklyer's manipulations). Walt has made all of his choices despite having an easy out--essentially he has endangered his family, committed murder, and created a meth empire due to his unparalleled arrogance and narcissism.

    I believe that is the episode that makes it clear that Walt didn't "break bad". He always was.

  • GDI

    I think in retrospect it assures you that he was always bad. When I first saw that episode, I felt as insulted for Walt. How dare they throw the consolation prize in his face!
    It shows how someone with this sort of righteous fury and hubris might over-extend and commit a series of atrocities in vein attempt to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

    It was all the right elements, arranged in the correct order, to create this vile compound of wrongness.

  • Kate

    I think what people really forget is that while his family was struggling financially, had he done as planned and refused treatment, they wouldn't have been out on the streets after his death. The would have had to sell up and maybe rent. Skylar would have had to go back to work. Walt Jr. wouldn't have gotten a car, he might not have been able to go to college. But they wouldn't have been in ruins. Hank and Marie could have helped them financially. It would have sucked for a while, but it would have been ok.

    He didn't ever NEED to cook meth. He didn't NEED to leave his family with a ton of money. It was always an ego trip. He wanted to prove to them and himself that he could succeed at something. That's why he wouldn't accept help from Hank and Marie, it's why he wouldn't accept help from Gretchen and Elliot, it's why he hated the idea of laundering his money through his son's website. The original idea was that after he died Skylar and Walt Jr. would find all that money and be amazed and proud of him and what he accomplished for them. It was always a stupid plan that was all about his legacy.

  • It's the exact same problem I always had with people being so harsh on Betty Draper, but giving Don a pass. Don has everything, and so much of it. Walt had an excellent, respectable out. Neither one ever chooses the path that's better for those around them (and themselves, though they can't see it).I think it's clear with Betty's second marriage that however perfect she might not be, Don made her the worst version of herself with his inattention, philandering, and gaslighting. Just look at how he's changed Meghan in only two years.

    Skyler was never a perfect wife, or even a very understanding one, but she doesn't deserve the vilification that gets heaped on her. Hell, last season she faked a suicide attempt to get her kids away from Walt's influence and allowed herself to be held hostage to protect them, That's pretty decent motherin'

    Both Walt and Don are fundamentally rotten deep within themselves, though they've presented a socially acceptable face. It was shown in small moments here and there the first few seasons, and in both cases the later seasons show them stripped down to their core impulses...which are really ugly.

  • Ruby

    I'm always surprised by people's indifference to how horrible Don treated Betty. Aside from the constant cheating--seriously when she tells her therapist that sometimes Don makes love to her like she's a different person was heart breaking-- he was controlling, demeaning, and a terrible father. He lost his temper after finding out that a salesman was in his house, belittled her for trying to wear a bikini, and blamed her for Roger flirting with her.

    Every time one of his kids had a problem he immediately told Betty to take care of it. Hell, he even told Faye (who he barely knew and just meet his kids) to take care of Sally after she acted up. Along with being consistently neglectful of his children in general.
    He also never wanted to deal with Betty's problems. He just sent her to therapist, who he secretly talked to, and was annoyed she wasn't magically better.
    January Jones's limited acting actually works for Betty and showing how years of repressed anger have made all of her facial expressions and interactions with people vacant and dead.

  • Ruby

    If memory serves he had a few chances to get out. He doesn't because he wants power and he wants respect. This was extremely apparent with his relationship to Gale. Jesse is nearly as good as Walt at cooking Meth; but he still respect and looks up to Walt. He still calls him "Mr. White". Gale respected Walt--but was quickly matching Walt in the lab.
    Walt spent his life being pushed down and ignored, he's a genius that's works at high school trying to engage students who don't care or respect him, and his marriage was in a rut/lull.
    Let's be honest even if he was a single/divorced man, he still would have done everything the same.
    There is something fundamentally wrong with Walt.

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